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More than 5,000 barrels of oil have poured into the Gulf of Mexico since a deep water drilling rig leased to BP exploded, caught fire and sank. It happened last week.
For the last three days, robotic submarines have been trying to close a large valve on the floor of the Gulf. If they could succeed it would shut off the leak, but there's been no success. The oil is coming closer to shore. It is now within 20 miles of the coast of Louisiana.
The Coast Guard is considering setting fire to the Gulf. The idea is to burn off as much oil as possible before the slick makes landfall. From New Orleans, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN: About 60 people fill the Area Command Center, which is driving the oil spill containment effort 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. On the back wall are two large projection screens, which display the live video feeds from the Remote Operated Vehicles.
These robotic subs are at 5,000 feet below sea level, still trying to shut off the leaking oil well. It looks like a small version of NASA's Mission Control in Houston. But unlike the moon, this alien landscape is beyond the reach of human beings, no matter what kind of protective suit they might wear. In front of one computer screen, John Houston - the logistics section chief for BP - is briefing Shane Beck from the Coast Guard.
Mr. JOHN HOUSTON (Logistics section chief, BP): We can see them all by individual group how many helicopters we've got out there. How many fixed-wing aircraft we have.
GOODWYN: Down the hall, a grim-faced group of BP executives and Coast Guard officials relay the latest about the oil leak. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry makes no attempt to sugar coat it.
Rear Admiral MARY LANDRY (United States Coast Guard): I'm going to say, right up front, that BP's efforts to secure the source at the blowout preventer have not yet been successful. We're possibly 90 days out from securing the source permanently.
GOODWYN: That blowout preventer Admiral Landry referenced should have been the first line of defense. It's a massive high temperature, high pressure valve rated at 15,000 pounds per square inch. It sits on the ocean floor atop the well casing.
This valve was designed to automatically choke off the kind of catastrophic blowout which is suspected of causing the explosion and fire, killing the 11 oil workers and destroying the rig. It also has several backup mechanisms to stop oil from leaking from the wellhead, even after disaster.
But three days of failing to activate it now has the federal government moving on to plan B. And the first element of that plan is setting fire to the crude floating in the Gulf. Charlie Henry, oil spill expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, describes the risks in attempting a controlled burn.
Mr. CHARLIE HENRY (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): The most obvious result of igniting the oil on the surface of the water is that you generate this black plume. And although 95 to 98 percent of the oil actually is fully consumed into carbon dioxide and water, you do get some residuals that form, and it's smoke and soot.
GOODWYN: The slick is currently 80 miles long and 40 miles wide and growing. BP is building one of the largest pollution containment devices ever constructed which will be placed over the leaking well. It will capture the oil as it escapes and pump it safely to oil tankers on the surface, but that will take weeks to put into place and become operational.
A new drilling rig was moved into place yesterday, and as soon as the required permits are in order, it will begin to drill 18,000 feet below the ocean floor.
The new well will then move a mile horizontally and a drill bit will attempt to pierce the original well's casing. It seems like science fiction, but Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer believes they can do it.
Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (Chief operating officer, BP): This technology is complex, but we are capable of doing it using the latest skills in the industry and our abilities. Once we've intercepted the well, we will then inject heavy fluids followed by cement to permanently secure this well and ensure it can no longer flow to the surface.
GOODWYN: But this, too, will take weeks to complete. For the last several days, the predominant winds have been from the north and northwest, which have kept the slick from coming ashore.
Think of the oil like an army invading from the sea. The best chance the defenders have is to keep the invaders offshore, destroy them before they can gain a beachhead. BP is spending $2 million a day corralling the slick with booms and ships and bombing it from the air with dispersants.
Mr. SUTTLES: We're all very focused on fighting this offshore. We have good weather today. We're forecasting very good weather tomorrow. And we're hitting this thing very hard off shore right now. We're currently flying five aircraft, two C130s and three DC3s continuously putting dispersants and we're back to skimming. We're hitting this thing absolutely as hard as we can.
GOODWYN: In the meantime, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida are preparing for the worst - hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil fouling their beaches and wetlands. That won't take weeks. It could begin as soon as this weekend.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, New Orleans.
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